How Powerful Is the US Military?
Image Credit: Department of Defense

How Powerful Is the US Military?


The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington D.C.-based think tank, has recently published an index of U.S. military strengths. The report, subtitled “Assessing America’s Ability to Provide for the Common Defense,” predictably decries the current alleged degradation of the U.S. military – despite the world’s largest defense budget – and notes that the United States will have difficulties fighting two regional wars simultaneously (the so-called Major Regional Contingency strategy).

“Overall, the Index concludes that the current U.S. military force is adequate to meeting the demands of a single major regional conflict while also attending to various presence and engagement activities. Clearly, this is what the military is doing now and has done for the past two decades, but it would be very hard-pressed to do more and certainly would be ill-equipped to handle two, near-simultaneous major regional contingencies,” the paper, edited by Dakota L. Wood, states.

The reasons for this, according to the Heritage Foundation, are mostly fiscal constraints:

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The consistent decline in funding and the consequent shrinking of the force are putting it under significant pressure. Essential maintenance is being deferred; fewer units (mostly the Navy’s platforms and the Special Operations Forces community) are being cycled through operational deployments more often and for longer periods; and old equipment is being extended while programmed replacements are problematic. The cumulative effect of such factors has resulted in a U.S. military that is marginally able to meet the demands of defending America’s vital national interests.

It goes without saying that the Heritage report sketches out American “vital national interests” as broadly as possible including “preservation of freedom of movement within the global commons: the sea, air, outer-space, and cyberspace domains through which the world conducts business.” This of course can only be achieved through military domination of all those domains, an understandable goal for the world’s sole superpower but also one that requires enormous expenditures of treasures.

Already the U.S. military appears to be underfunded to fulfill this global role:

The common theme across the services and the United States’ nuclear enterprise is one of force degradation resulting from many years of underinvestment, poor execution of modernization programs, and the negative effects of budget sequestration (i.e., cuts in funding) on readiness and capacity.

As mentioned above, the benchmark selected for the individual services is whether they are “marginally” capable of fighting two regional conflict at the same time. “Marginal” in this context means that they are barely capable of doing so. The report’s summary of the individual service branches capabilities to meet this requirement is as follows:

  • Army as “Marginal.” The Army was at the low end of the middle grade (marginal) in capacity and capability and scored quite low in readiness (as reported by the Army), with the three scores combining to place it in the low end of the middle category.
  • Navy as “Marginal.” The Navy scored quite strong in readiness but at a cost to future capability. Deferred maintenance has kept ships at sea, but at some point in the near future, this will affect the ability of the Navy to deploy. Combined with a weak score in capability (due largely to old platforms and troubled modernization programs) and a marginal score in capacity, the Navy is currently just able to meet requirements.
  • Air Force as “Strong.” The Air Force flies a lot and has significantly more aircraft than required for a two-MRC force, but it is an Air Force of aging aircraft, and its modernization programs are problematic. Still, its high scores in capacity and readiness placed it in the best position of all of the services.
  • Marine Corps as “Marginal.” The Corps’ strongest suit was in readiness, but even here there are problems as stated by the Corps itself. While the fighting competency of the service is superb, it is hampered by old equipment, troubled replacement programs for its key ground vehicles, and a shrinking force. The progress it has made in replacing its rotary-wing aircraft is a notable bright spot in its modernization portfolio.
  • Nuclear Capabilities as “Marginal.” Modernization, testing, and investment in the intellectual/talent underpinnings of this sector are the chief elements plaguing the U.S. nuclear enterprise. Delivery platforms are good, but the force depends on a very limited set of weapons (in number of designs) and models that are quite old in stark contrast to the aggressive programs of competitor states.

A real analytical problem arises when one digs into the methodology of how the report was compiled. “These characterizations are not a reflection of the competence of individual service members or the professionalism of the services or Joint Force as a whole; nor do they speak to the U.S. military’s strength relative to other militaries around the world. Rather, they are assessments of the institutional, programmatic, and matériel health or viability of America’s hard military power,” the study notes.

Yet, military power always has to be compared and analyzed in relative and not absolute terms. If one does not take into account the dialectical nature of military competition, neither realistic threat assessments nor assessments on the proper amount of resources spent to meet those threats can be made. The lack of a solid analysis of relative military power makes the overall well-researched report less compelling, and appears to be a prime example of inside-the-beltway introversion, with the authors more consumed with battling the overblown Pentagon bureaucracy , than with what is happening in the rest of the world.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief